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New Cub Epstein gets a bear hug

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 26, 2011

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CHICAGO - Halas, Ditka, Jordan. And now, Epstein?

That was the feeling you got here yesterday.

There was euphoria among Cubs fans outside Wrigley Field cheering and hollering Theo Epstein’s name. Named the team’s president of baseball operations at a late morning news conference attended by Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and Maria Epstein, Theo’s wife, he is Chicago’s newest savior.

Epstein has been chosen by Ricketts to end a 103-year curse.

“When I got to Boston, they hadn’t won in 86 years,’’ said Epstein. “We didn’t run from that challenge. We embraced it.

“We decided the way to attack it was to build the best baseball operation that we could, to try to establish a winning culture, to work as hard as possible and to bring in players who care more about each other and more about winning than the people around them thought or the external expectations, the external mind-set. That’s something that is going to be important to us here as well.

“We’re going to build the best baseball operation we can. We’re going to change the culture. Our players are going to change the culture along with us in the major league clubhouse.

“We’re going to make building a foundation for sustained success a priority. That will lead to playing October baseball more often than not. Once you get in in October, there’s a legitimate chance to win the World Series.’’

This is the most expansive feeling of hope since Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election with the very theme that Cubs fans now expound with Epstein.

Yesterday’s press conference provided exciting rhetoric, and Epstein will have time to tout his new-wave ideas in an old-school town. He closed some doors in Boston as he opened new ones in Chicago.

Asked if he gave Ben Cherington any advice as he takes over Epstein’s old job in what are tough circumstances in Boston, Epstein said, “Ben is more qualified than anyone in the game to take this job over. I know I’m biased because I’m close and loyal to him, but he really is the best guy.

“He’s had such a well-rounded development. He has so much integrity, great management skills of people. I would not have left the Red Sox if he weren’t the guy to take over, if I didn’t have assurance that he’d be taking over.’’

Epstein already has taken care of most of his front office staff, bringing in Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod from San Diego to be the general manager and assistant GM. He has to make decisions on existing staff, as it appears that part of his settlement with the Red Sox is to not raid their staff.

“I can’t get into exact stipulations,’’ Epstein said. “It’s been important to me to have continuity, and it’s important to me that Ben succeed. While there may be a fit for somebody who may be blocked by the Red Sox, there’s not going to be any kind of raid on either side.’’

He opened by saying, “It truly feels great to be a Cub today.’’

No Boston kid ever would say that, would he?

But for Epstein, it was time.

He had decided over a 72-hour period between the end of the season and Terry Francona’s departure that he would not be staying. He said John Henry and Tom Werner offered him any role he wanted in the team and the Fenway Sports Group, and that he appreciated the sentiment, but he had pretty much made up his mind.

So after Francona was gone, he spent time in his Fenway office “hugging my stapler,’’ but also performing Red Sox business, including helping on the managerial search, year-end employee reviews, staffing issues, etc. He said he suggested “creative ways’’ to help solve the impasse on compensation, but he was on the outside on that issue. Now he’ll be on the inside.

“The Cubs and Red Sox have a great working relationship,’’ Epstein said. “They’ve had one for years, they are going to have one together in the future. There are a lot of solid relationships on both ends.’’

Commissioner Bud Selig said he would intervene if the sides hadn’t settled on compensation by Nov. 1, but it appears Epstein and Cherington have been discussing it for more than a week.

Asked whether he would ever hire Francona again, Epstein said, “Any question concerning the Cubs managerial situation is not open for discussion. I’m not going to touch it. I’ve had conversations with Mike Quade, sharing our visions and deciding what to do.

“Terry Francona and I have a close personal relationship and I have respect for him. Is he going to be a great manager for somebody someday? Absolutely. Can he help organizations in other ways? Absolutely.

“It’s up to Terry what he wants to do down the line. It’s not so much what Terry is going to do this year or next, it’s what Terry wants to do over the next two decades.’’

One of the many reasons he felt he needed to leave Boston when he did was the Francona development.

“Once we got through the season, we were in position with the Red Sox to hire a new manager,’’ said Epstein. “I felt that was best done by Ben, because he was going to be there for the long haul.

“And when the Cubs called, frankly, that really got my attention because of the history, because of the tradition, and because of the Ricketts commitment to winning.”

Epstein was asked whether any of this would have happened had Francona not left.

“Yeah, probably still there,’’ he said. “That was a big part of the decision.’’

He always will have regrets concerning the Sox’ September demise and the stories that followed, which he said were “really hard for me.

“For a number of different reasons, I imagined my transition would smell more like champagne than beer.’’

Were there any lessons learned from September?

“Lesson learned from a front office perspective is that the high standards we have have to be reinforced with very active, hands-on management,’’ he said. “Even with a stable coaching staff and one fantastic manager who had been in place for a long time, you can’t ever defer and stay out of the clubhouse because you don’t want to get in the way.

“There has to be active, hands-on management in concert with the manager to lead the organization and make sure the standards we set are being lived up to.’’

Epstein said he will miss the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.

“It was one of those things that made the job so special,’’ he said. “I can’t wait for the Cubs-Cardinals and an emerging one with the Brewers.’’

And there it was.

Epstein is a Cub. Boston is now a memory of his childhood and the place where he truly grew up.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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